Sinuses are cavities within the head when they become inflamed it can cause a Sinus headache. The maxillary sinuses are located in behind the cheeks. They are the largest sinuses in the head. The frontal sinuses are behind the forehead. There are also small sinuses located between the eyes, called ethmoid sinuses, and behind the nose, called sphenoid sinuses.

It's unclear why humans have sinuses. It's thought that they may help to make the air we breathe more humid. They are usually empty apart from small amounts of mucus and are lined with mucosa tissue. Sometimes, issues can develop in the sinuses, causing sinus headaches.

Common Causes

Sinus headaches are caused by a build-up of inflammation in the sinuses. This is often caused by an allergic reaction. When the sinuses become inflamed, they can't drain properly, and this causes pressure and pain to develop. The pressure in the sinuses can feel like a headache.

Sinus headaches are often experienced alongside migraines or other headaches. They may also be triggered by an infection inside the sinuses caused by bacteria or a virus. However, the vast majority of sinus headaches are not caused by infection.

Sinus Headache

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The most common symptom of a sinus headache is a feeling of pain and pressure around the location of the sinuses in the forehead, nose and cheeks. The discomfort usually becomes worse if the person leans forward or lies down. Nasal congestion is also a common symptom of a sinus headache. There may be soreness in the upper teeth which can be mistaken for a dental problem.

If a sinus headache is caused by a sinus infection (sinusitis), the headache may be accompanied by green or yellow mucus from the nose. The person may feel very unwell with a fever. Infections in the sinuses can cause bad breath.

sinus headache symptoms

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Risk Factors

Anybody could develop a sinus headache, including children. However, a person is more likely to develop a sinus headache if they have a history of headaches and migraines. A family history of these associated conditions also places a person at higher risk.

Hormonal factors that are known to trigger other types of headache can also trigger sinus headaches. Therefore, women going through times of hormonal change are at a higher risk. This includes pregnant and menstruating women and those going through the menopause.


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Sinus headaches can be difficult to diagnose because they share symptoms with other types of a headache. A doctor will begin by examining the patient and taking a medical history. They will ask about symptoms and look for any obvious signs of infection like abnormal mucus.

They may also order medical imaging tests to determine the cause of the headaches. CT scans can be used to create images of the inside of the head and sinuses to check for inflammation. MRI scans can also be used to check that the headaches are not being caused by a problem within the brain.


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Sinus headaches have various treatments depending on the underlying cause. Pain and discomfort can usually be treated using over-the-counter painkillers. If the inflammation in the sinuses is caused by an allergic reaction, the doctor may recommend antihistamine tablets or nasal sprays. Steroid sprays may also be helpful for some people.

If the headaches are caused by a sinus infection, this may be treated using antibiotics if the person is feeling very unwell and the infection is thought to have a bacterial cause. However, most cases of sinus infection are viral. Antibiotics are ineffective at treating viral sinus infections. However, these viruses usually clear up on their own within a couple of weeks.


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Home Treatment

If a sinus headache is mild, it can often be treated at home without seeing a doctor. A doctor may also recommend self-care measures alongside prescribed treatment. People with sinus headaches should get plenty of rest and keep themselves well-hydrated.

Irrigating the nasal passages with a saltwater solution can also help to flush allergens and irritants out of the nasal passages and ease congestion and inflammation. Saltwater nasal irrigation sprays can be purchased over the counter in a pharmacy. Alternatively, the person may prefer to rinse their sinuses out at home using a simple device called a neti pot. This is similar to a small watering can. The person pours the saltwater solution into one nostril over a sink and allows it to drain out the other side.


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When to Seek Help

Many people do not seek help for mild or very occasional cases of sinus headache. However, it's important to see a doctor if the person is having very frequent headaches and is taking painkillers very often. Severe headaches also require evaluation by a health care professional, especially if over-the-counter pain medication is ineffective. If the headaches are stopping the person from attending school or work or are interrupting their daily life, they should see a doctor.

These types of headache need to be evaluated because they can be a sign that the person has chronic sinus inflammation. It is also necessary to rule out more serious potential causes of the headache.


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Specialist Referral

If other causes have been ruled out, a person experiencing sinus headaches may require referral to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist in certain circumstances.

Sinus headaches that don't respond to first-line treatments from the family doctor after several months may need more specialist evaluation. People with sinus headaches that keep coming back, or headaches that only affect one side of the face, may also require referral to an ENT specialist.


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Surgery for Sinus Headaches

If the person's sinus headaches are chronic or severe, they may require surgery. This is usually carried out under a general anesthetic. As it is performed using an endoscope, the surgery is minimally invasive.

The surgeon will try to widen the sinuses in order to reduce pressure and relieve the person's headaches. One method commonly used is to remove the inflamed tissue from inside the sinuses. Alternatively, the surgeon may inflate a small surgical balloon inside the sinuses before removing it. This can help to widen the cavity.


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Many sinus headaches cannot be prevented. However, they may be avoidable if they are caused by allergies. Avoiding allergy triggers such as particular foods or chemicals can help prevent sinus headaches from occurring. Quitting smoking and avoiding second-hand tobacco smoke can also be helpful.

If the cause is hormonal, avoiding medications containing estrogen can help to reduce the severity or frequency of sinus headaches. Many birth control tablets and hormonal replacement therapy for women going through the menopause contain estrogen.


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